Features Archive | 12/19/2013
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Part 2: Making of the Sundering Videos
Legacy of the Crystal Shard
Vincent Kovar

T he creative team behind the Dungeons & Dragons Sundering videos was growing quickly. Even so, they all knew they'd need to pull in the best production company they could find. First on their list was Plastic Wax Animation, based in Sydney, Australia. Plastic Wax is one of the world's leading CG and cinematic studios, and the team was thrilled to get them on board.

"We contacted Plastic Wax right away because they had built the Siege of Neverwinter video, which we loved, and we knew they had those amazing D&D assets from Cryptic," says project director Brian Amadon, Wizards' designer for new media. "Cryptic had told us we could use anything, and it turned out that we could use digital assets from the Siege video as well. In fact, the characters assembled at the end of the first Sundering video all came from Neverwinter."

Brian describes the first calls with Plastic Wax owners, brothers Dane and Nathan Maddams. "It turns out that, like us, they played D&D as kids and really loved the game. We completely geeked out, and I popped the big question: 'Do you want to help me move D&D forward into the next era?' Their response was an enthusiastic 'Yes!'"

Plastic Wax uses a state-of-the-art, 24-camera Vicon MX40 motion capture system, so they asked the team to send them some video of how Sir Isteval might walk. Brian, project artist David Interdonato, and video producer Justin Bergeron gathered out in the Wizards of the Coast parking lot to capture those early shots.

"David brought a sword," Brian recalls, "and then I taped one of his legs into a poster tube that I'd split open so he could really get a feel for Isteval." Fans will recall that our fearless paladin suffered lifelong injuries after running afoul of a green dragon, and has to walk with a cane. However, in the real world, no one had thought to bring a walking stick to the shoot. The way Brian tells it, Justin and he were unsuccessfully trying to pull down a tree branch when, "David walked up with the sword and, very Isteval-like, cleanly sliced down the branch in one stroke." (The tree is fine).

Even with a limited budget and high aspirations, the Sundering videos were starting to come together. After the team at Wizards sent off their sketches, storyboards, and animatics (preliminary rough animations), Plastic Wax started sending back WIPs (works-in-progress). Those early videos were entirely grey, essentially just sketching out the space, camera positioning, and movement of the character. Take a look at the split screen with the animatic and the final render from the first Sundering video to get a sense of the process.

"The more alive Isteval became," Justin says, "the more we recognized that he needed a voice. So we started auditioning voice-over actors. As it turns out, the guy we chose, Jeff McCarthy, was located in New York. Using Skype, we connected with Jeff in New York, Plastic Wax in Australia, and Brian and I here in Washington State for a live recording of the Isteval dialog.

"Choosing Jeff McCarthy was pretty easy, as we all thought he sounded just like Liam Neeson. He is totally amazing to listen to, and he really didn't need to do anything unusual to his voice. We were just sitting there completely enthralled, just hearing him talk back and forth to the sound editor. He was wonderfully professional and responded so well to direction. For instance, he didn't know how to say 'Bhaal,' but when I described him as the god of murder and the vilest person ever, his pronunciation became so seething and perfect."

Meanwhile, David continued to detail out the stained-glass windows, the remorhaz floor mural, and other pieces, then sent them to Plastic Wax for integration. Using an in-house composer, Plastic Wax also produced the amazing original musical score you hear in the final products.

Back in Renton, the team's new production assistant, Carrington Long, started at Wizards in mid-August and plunged right into the Sundering project. Carrington had always had an interest in video production, and met Justin while the latter was producing and editing the documentary The United States of Football. "This is the first time I've done animation from start to finish," Carrington says, "and it's really gratifying."

Using Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects, Carrington used the WIPs to tweak the timing and visual effects, ensuring all the pieces were fitting together. It was then that the team discovered something "wasn't quite right." They felt that once Sir Isteval burst through the first set of doors, he needed a more urgent, resolute walk—chin up, determined to stand strong. Once again, the team headed out to the Wizards parking lot, this time with Brian playing the role of the paladin. Check out the included split-screen video and see if you can detect which walk is David's and which one Brian inspired.

WIPs flew back and forth across the Internet between the US and Australia, each of them adding additional detail. "One of the interesting things about working in an entirely manufactured environment is the amount of control you have," Brian says. Justin agrees, but points out how all that control comes at a price. "You really have to make a lot of individual decisions about everything. How much light do you want? What direction does it come from? How does it move and interact with the environment?

"For instance, as the storm outside the temple turns to a freezing blizzard, a sheet of ice follows Isteval down the hall, coating the stained-glass windows. We had to make a lot of choices about how to vary the thickness of the ice—how much shine it would have, how translucent it would be, and how much color will bleed through from the glass. In live action, a lot of those decisions are made during the shoot, but in 3D digital, nothing exists unless we specifically create it. It can take a lot more time to get exactly the right effect. We're so fortunate to have Plastic Wax working on this, as they're really masters of the craft."

"Looking back," reflects Brian, "the whole project is a lot like playing Dungeons & Dragons. It's a collaborative creation where everybody in the game adds to the reality of the adventure. There's a lot of art and imagination involved at every step. Describing how a dungeon looks is great training for cinematography. Everything from roleplaying the voices of the NPCs to thinking about how a character would really act under different circumstances helped us make Isteval the strong leader that he is. I mean, here's this guy who goes out into an avalanche and is so badass, all he does is put up his hood."

In the end, the Sundering videos are the product of dozens of people putting in hundreds of hours in different cities, separated by continents and oceans. "Even then," Brian adds, "we couldn't have done it at all if everyone wasn't so passionate about Dungeons & Dragons. It's a lot different from a lot of other jobs, in that everyone put in a lot of un-billed hours, a lot of talent, and a lot of imagination just because they love the game."

Do you love the game as much as we love the game? If so, we need your help, heroes! Find a D&D Encounters game near you and take part in the Sundering. Watch the videos. Subscribe to the channel on YouTube. Share and tweet the videos on social media. Join the adventure and make your story legend.

The Sundering videos can be seen on the D&D website.

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